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Don Rickert Musician Shop

T-Rex Octave Viola by D. Rickert with Video Demo

Posted by D. Rickert on

How good can an acoustic octave viola sound? The T-Rex Octave Viola sets the standard.  T-Rex Plan view 2


The T-Rex Octave Viola by D. Rickert Musical Instruments and other amazing low-pitched acoustic bowed instruments are available at the Don Rickert Musician Shop.

Go Right to YouTube for Demo

T-Rex Octave Viola Demo on YouTube


Since the inception of our ongoing adventure as an independent boutique custom lutherie (began in 2007 officially), we have always allocated much attention to designing and making the best possible acoustic octave (aka baritone) violins and fiddles. More recently (about 4 years ago), we added acoustic octave violas (aka “chin cellos”) to our product offerings.

Our Initial Goal for Octave Violas

When we stepped into the octave viola arena, our goal was simple: To develop an instrument that sounded a lot better than the original “ChinCellos”, cleverly marketed by a large Asian manufacturer with an Italian-sounding name.

These original “ChinCellos”, still sold today through the large online musical instrument mega-stores, are basically student-level instruments set up with special octave viola strings (made by SuperSensitive) and tuned to the same notes (i.e. frequencies) as a full-size cello. The maker claims internal modifications to increase sonority. We assume that this would be some kind of modification to the bass bar.

These instruments sound about as good as an $800 converted student instrument could sound. To summarize, their sound is somewhat muffled with a particularly weak-sounding C-string. They do not sound anything like a full-size cello.

To be fair, they do sound pretty good with a decent pickup installed and played through an amplifier.

Our Quest for an Amazing Chin Cello

Over several years of experimentation and very patient original customers, we discovered the lutherie secrets for generating great sound from purpose-built (i.e. not converted regular instruments) octave VIOLINS. Unfortunately, those trade secrets did not apply in any direct way with octave VIOLAs. It really was difficult to coax amazing power from that pesky low C-string.

Special bass bars and deeper bodies achieved more volume but not the cello-like focused sound we were going for. We could not even get that elusive sharp, focused, rich and sonorous sound from small cellos suspended by a guitar-like shoulder strap (called a Violoncello da Spalla).

Our Discovery of the Tertis Wide-Body Viola Pattern

Lionel Tertis is regarded by many as the greatest viola player of the 20th century. Tertis preferred a large viola in order to get an especially rich tone from his instrument. Tertis created a viola pattern that would provide the tonal advantages as a large 17.5 inch viola from a 16 inch viola, which is today regarded as a full size viola. Tertis violas are considerably wider than conventional violas of the same body lenths, especially in the middle bout. This extreme body width with a relatively shallow depth seems to be the source of the acoustic magic of a Tertis body.

Tertis pattern instruments have the appearance of incredibly large violas; however, their playable string lengths and rib heights are standard. In the case of a 16” instrument, the string length would be about 14.5” and the rib height of about 38mm.

The T-Rex Octave Viola

Through our business relationships with the top Asian lutheries (yes, there are some really great master luthiers in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea these days), we sorted out having the T-Rex instruments partially made to our specifications. They are then completed in our Hiwassee, GA, USA workshops. We can make you one completely in our U.S. workshop for about 4 times the price ($8,500+)…and it will not sound any better!

The primary work we do on the instrument is fine-tuning of the top graduations and occasional bar adjustments, as well as a quite unique setup using a Dov Schmidt “Harp” tailpiece to which we attach the strings in a most unconventional way, per discoveries we learned from the great maker of large violas and, at one time, octave violins, David Ravinus. Our stringing practice is a complex topic for another time. Trust me: the compensated tailpiece; unique stringing and setup makes the difference between sounding really good and amazing!

How Does it Sound?

Large But Quite Playable  T-Rex and Regular Violin 2

As big as it looks next to a regular violin (see image), it has a 16” body. Because it is based on a Tertis viola pattern, it is really wide, making it look like a much larger instrument. The span of the lower bout is more than 10 inches. That is really wide! Nevertheless, the instrument is surprising easy to manage and hold (yes, with an extra large shoulder rest), as the rib height is a manageable 38mm; about the same as a regular 16” viola.

Find Out More

You can visit the T-Rex product listing details at the Don Rickert Musician Shop Site.

We do wish to stress that this instrument is only to be played with a high-quality cello bow!

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